Singing Christmas Carols
All the evangelical clichÃ©s about the supreme authority of the Bible count for nothing if our services are allowed to become entertainment, if the great doctrinal psalms and hymns are being replaced by subjective ditties sung over and over again to some impossibly jerking melodies with no recognisable metre.
Singing great hymns has been one of the cornerstones of religious experience, but increasingly, children are unable to sing more than a few first lines or name more than half a dozen carols. And why? Many British schools, revealing a form of cultural vandalism, have jettisoned the tradition of communal singing, or, when it does happen, the ‘hymns’ tend to be miserable, repetitive banalities on a handful of notes such as ‘Mary had a baby, yes Lord’. Or consider this dreadful piece of political correctness which I found in the hymnbook used daily in a leading independent school:
‘Mary blessed teenage mother …
Out of wedlock pregnant found …
Now through all the townships ringing,
Hear the black madonna cry.’
We are acutely aware of the brutalized nature of contemporary society. There is a close relationship between the kind of music that we sing and listen to and our social attitudes and behaviour. Lengthy exposure to loud and discordant pop music does not just produce tinnitus and deafness; it also deadens the senses in other respects and encourages introversion, self-centredness and antisocial behaviour. With this there has been a collective loss of the mental stock of meaningful things in life like honour, sacrifice, humbling, dignity, sacrifice, tragedy and God, in other words, the biblical interpretation of the coming of the Son of God.
Young teenage carol-singers knocking at your door can ask for money in a rather threatening way for their pathetic rendition of “We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year”, and for an encore they may sing, “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.” They know nothing more than the opening line of a couple of carols. Their childhood has been impoverished.
The capacity of hymns experienced and learned when you are young to stir and stay with those who have moved in adulthood to agnosticism remains very potent. D. H. Lawrence in 1928, two years before his death, wrote an article on the subject of ‘Hymns in a Man’s Life’ in which he said, “Nothing is more difficult than to determine what a child takes in, and does not take in, or its environment and its teaching. This fact is brought home to me by the hymns which I learned as a child, and never forgot. They mean to me almost more than the finest poetry, and they have for me a more permanent value, somehow or other.” For him the real power of hymns lay in their capacity to evoke wonder, the element which is the basis of a child’s perceptions. A prophetic query made by Alfred Tennyson shortly before his death in 1892 is being fulfilled. “What will people come to in a hundred years?” he asked the head of an Oxford college. “Do you think they will give up all religious forms and go and sit in silence in churches listening to the organs?” Over 90 % of the population in Britain never enter a place of worship.
Singing hymns about the coming of Jesus Christ is one means of education. Children are made aware of the weighty dignity of great themes, learning the meaning of words in their context. And it doesn’t matter if these things take time to absorb. It was T. S. Eliot who argued that fine language can communicate before it is understood. You can explore the rhythm and workings of the language through Christian hymns.
Behind the assault on inaccessible and ‘difficult’ carols lies the demand of our post literary culture that everything should be understandable and relevant and nothing left mysterious or ambiguous. Many Christmas carols fail this requirement completely. They fit uneasily into the age of the sound bite when image is all and content counts for little. Instead of being ‘up-front’ and ‘user-friendly’, carols ooze subtlety and mystery and are packed with ambiguities and nuances. They are full of ‘difficult’ phrases and ideas which only begin to unpack themselves with growing familiarity.
The chief problem is not difficulty of language but spiritual incomprehension through mankind’s death in sin. Attempts to modernise carols, removing perceived archaism and obscurity often end up with hymns being robbed of their resonance, reducing them to banality.
The danger in an overwhelmingly secular, rootless and nostalgic age is that Christmas carols are becoming part of the burgeoning heritage industry and are being viewed as rather quaint period pieces, along with drawing room ballads and palm court favourites. It is only in the context of vigorous preaching of the incarnation and knowing the opening chapters of the gospels that hymns on the incarnation can come to life as state of the art vital doxology.